Churchgoers rally for gay rights in Boston. Creative Commons photo

Last week President Barack Obama publicly unveiled his now fully “evolved” belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Media reports called his announcement a “watershed move.”  I disagree. While Obama’s statement might be historic, it merely follows a watershed change in American attitude that occurred over a year ago.

It’s important to remember that when Obama first ran for president five years ago, polls showed that a clear majority of Americans still opposed gay marriage. At that time, Obama (prudently) “believed” marriage was strictly for heterosexuals. But, with one eye on the poll trends and the other on his liberal base, Obama loudly hedged and said his opinion on the issue was “evolving.” So now that public opinion polls have firmly crossed over, and a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, the president has followed suit, and just in time for his re-election campaign.


In the interview announcing his support for gay marriage, Obama justified his view with a political trifecta of references: to family, the military, and religion. He said his thinking had been changed by his daughters’ views (check), the sacrifices of gay members of the armed forces (check), and the golden rule, which instructs us to treat others as we’d want to be treated (check).

I’d give Obama a lot more credit if he had announced this a year ago and, instead of standing behind his daughters, the military and the bible, had candidly admitted to everyone:

“America, I’ve always been for marriage equality, but in order to get elected president I decided to compromise my beliefs and support bigotry. I sacrificed principle for ambition, and reaped the rewards. Politicians may do it all the time, but that doesn’t make it right. So I want to apologize to everyone, especially the gay community, for this inexcusable lapse. Hereafter, I promise to fight for marriage equality because I believe gays should be allowed to tie the knot, and become as miserable as the rest of us.”

Perhaps that last part could stand a little polish, but you catch my drift. When a president announces a new belief after tens of millions of Americans have already felt a similar change of heart, that’s not exactly bravery under fire. More like leading from behind. I give him credit but, again, the real watershed is the massive sea change on gay marriage that has already occurred, in a very short span of time. What accounts for it? The LGBT movement? Changing demographics? Popular culture, and TV shows like “Will & Grace” and “Glee”?

On an issue like marriage, how did we go from 70/30 against to 50/45 for, in only 16 years? That’s the real “watershed” that needs examination.

After the conservative Tea Party movement powered Republicans in 2010 to a new majority in the House of Representatives, I wrote a column pointing out the liberal gay marriage political trend lurking beneath the headlines. Despite the election results, I noted that polls indicated a majority of Americans would soon favor marriage equality. At the time, I stated:

Early in his career Obama was for gay marriage, then prior to running for president he was against it. It’s an indicator of how quickly attitudes are changing that Obama might switch his view again, out of political necessity, to win re-election in 2012.

Apologies for the self-quote, but I need to counter the gobs of lame political analysis now circulating in the mediasphere. The idea that Obama’s admission wasn’t a calculated move is total horse pucky. It makes perfect political sense. By supporting gay marriage, he tables it as an issue at the Democratic convention while simultaneously elevating it as an issue for the presidential election. Sure, it will ensure his defeat in states he won in 2008, like North Carolina and Indiana. But those were likely lost anyway, and Obama’s team will happily trade that support if it means drawing enough lukewarm moderate voters to their side in key regions, like the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida, which will determine his re-election prospects.

What does this have to do with New Orleans?

New Orleans fashions as a libertine city in a conservative region. Online, we market ourselves to gay tourists, with promotions featuring actor Bryan Batt from the wildly popular “Mad Men” TV show. And on Labor Day weekend, gays will celebrate in the French Quarter at the annual Southern Decadence festival. But will New Orleans continue to draw the same (lucrative) crowds, if Louisiana remains a stubborn outpost of intolerance in a country that increasingly accepts gay marriage?

Key political tensions that will affect national politics in the coming years are already at play right here in Louisiana. But first let me argue that the gay marriage issue is much more politically important than it seems. Among many, it reaches down into the subconscious in an elemental way that’s not fully appreciated (or reflected in poll metrics). Those who are opposed to gay marriage – often conservative fundagelical men — are nauseated by the whole thing. They can’t get past the “yuck” factor associated with what they imagine goes  on in gay bedrooms. On the flip side are others – often moderate independent women – who are revolted by the intolerance displayed by the supporters of “traditional” marriage. In short, they feel, “I want to be on the other side of those haters; they remind me of my crabby uncle.” Broadly speaking, the former type helps Republicans run up big margins of victory in Southern states, while the latter group is the key swing vote in the key swing states. The Obama campaign doesn’t mind energizing the former if it can appeal to the latter.

Let’s remind ourselves how far the politics of this have changed in recent years.

In 2000 political strategist Karl Rove believed that four million conservative Christian voters decided not to vote when it was disclosed that candidate George W. Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving. That’s why Bush didn’t win in a walk, according to Rove. While Rove has never offered statistical proof of his claim, everyone seems to accept it rather than consider the possibility that Rove’s estimates were wildly optimistic. Either way, the important thing is that Rove apparently believed it (or at least couldn’t allow his ego to believe otherwise.)

So, in 2004, Rove orchestrated a clever plan to ensure a better fundagelical turnout for Bush’s re-election. It was not centered around Bush, but rather, around various anti-gay marriage initiatives set up by state legislatures that would draw social conservatives to the polls on the national election day.

Kudos to The Times-Picayune’s Bruce Nolan for adding the following historical perspective to the Washington Post article on Obama’s announcement reprinted in today’s local paper:

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise criticized Obama for his statement and its timing.

“At a time when our economy is struggling and gas prices are skyrocketing, it’s surprising President Obama is more focused on advancing his extreme social agenda rather than solving the economic and fiscal problems that are holding America back,” Scalise said.

While a state representative in 2004, Scalise was lead sponsor of a constitutional amendment approved by 78 percent of Louisiana voters, that defines marriage in Louisiana as being solely a “union of one man and one woman” and prohibits state judges and officials from recognizing same-sex marriages and civil unions sanctioned in other states.

It’s funny that Scalise’s main argument is not against Obama’s position as much as against his priorities. “Don’t we have bigger things to worry about?” Scalise seems to say – as if we didn’t in 2004.

It’s worth noting that, while Bush won re-election, he and Rove went back to the same political well, and tried to make “defense of marriage” an issue prior to the mid-term elections in 2006, which saw Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives. Notably, the Tea Party movement and successful GOP candidates found success in 2010 by de-emphasizing social issues such as opposition to gay marriage.

While I’m not claiming that the issue was the driving force in American politics for the past decade, it’s very interesting to track the change in national attitude as well as the political results over that same span. The issue has unseen importance, because it relates to the key tensions in the Republican party. The GOP has a real problem on their hands with this one. Their libertarian and pragmatic moderate factions are increasingly pro-gay marriage. But their fundagelical true believers, as well as the Republican pols who painted themselves into an ideological corner to appeal to them, will have to continue standing in stalwart opposition to gay marriage, as the rest of the country continues to “evolve” around them.

Scalise has no fear of political repercussion in Louisiana. Even the local Tea Party organizations here have a strong bent toward “social issues” that you don’t see in other regions. And don’t forget the immense influence the Louisiana Family Forum has on “pro-family” state legislation, as well as the long reach of Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, which organizes “pro-family” voters nationwide.

Fundagelicals are a key part of the Republican base, and they sincerely oppose the national trend toward  gay marriage. I’ve got to hand it to them. In a way they were right. Their concept of marriage has come under “attack,” much more quickly than I ever would’ve anticipated. But what are they going to do now?

I wouldn’t expect them to quickly “evolve” on this issue in stride with the national trend. And in conservative Louisiana neither they, nor their favored representatives, Scalise among them, will have to change. But that’s why it’s doubly revealing that instead of a full-throttle defense of traditional marriage, Scalise opted to criticize Obama for his timing.

The political implications of this watershed have very interesting implications, especially for rising stars like Gov. Bobby Jindal – who has built his career on not eschewing social or moral issues. Jindal’s anti-gay marriage views will hold up fine in the Pelican State for years to come, but how will they look to a national electorate in, say, 2016?

I’m fascinated by this issue, and its potential effect on how our state’s political leadership is perceived nationally, as well as the potential for political backlash that might hurt New Orleans’ tourist economy. More immediately, I believe the gay marriage issue – and the cleavages it exacerbates in the Republican base – will continue to affect political outcomes in national politics in the next few cycles.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...